AS schools across Cork begin to resume after the summer break, the Covid outbreak remains the most pressing issue facing school bodies.
That’s according to Joe McKeown, the recently appointed INTO President.
The Haulbowline native assumed the role of president this summer from another Cork person, Mary Magner.
Joe began his teaching career in St Canice’s Primary School, Kilkenny, when he graduated from St Patrick’s College in 1982. He spent three years as principal of Kilkenny School Project before he joined the staff of St Patrick’s BNS. He was appointed Deputy Principal in 2009.
He is currently principal of the 27-teacher school which has three special classes for children with autism, but is on secondment from the role.
The new president has specific aims he hopes to achieve during his 12-month tenure, but says that Covid is the most urgent issue facing members.
“Covid is the big issue and the immediate concern. “
Mr McKeown said vaccinated teachers have a ‘concern’ about returning to schools ahead of the new year and interacting daily with unvaccinated students.
“We are all conscious of the fact that teachers are probably the only group of workers who will be in a room with unvaccinated people as the under 12 group will not be vaccinated. That is a particular concern for pregnant teachers, especially the pregnant teachers who can’t be vaccinated in their first 14 weeks.
“They are very nervous because they are at high risk and they will be working with unvaccinated people. They are concerned about their babies and themselves.”
He said they will continue to engage with the Department on this.
Traditionally union leaders and the government of the day have enjoyed a challenging relationship.
The new president said he is committed to ensuring the ‘lines of communication’ remain open to resolving any problems that may arise under his leadership.
“The important thing is that the Department, ourselves and the management authorities work really hard and meet up every week throughout the year to sort out any issues. While we disagree on issues sometimes at least we keep the lines of communication open to try and resolve problems. That is the best way for everybody.”
Mr McKeown said he has three priorities he wants to make progress in during his tenure.
“The INTO will always be involved in looking to improve teachers’ pay and conditions. There are three priorities. Class size, special education, and supporting disadvantaged children. Class sizes are a massive issue. There are approximately one in every six children in class sizes of over 30 students.
"That is not acceptable. We have a really good chance now with the school-going population declining. If we keep the same number of teachers we could bring the average class size down to the European class average. If we reduce the class sizes over the next three years we will achieve that,” he said.
“Looking at special education. Teachers and schools do a huge amount to help students with special needs. We would like the Department to recognise that special classes and special schools are important and supporting children in mainstream is important. All three are important parts. No one of them is more important than the other. We need to make sure that the children with special needs get the support they deserve. In Cork, there are many schools with special classes and special schools that do fantastic work. They need to be supported,” he added.
His third priority is making sure that disadvantaged children are supported properly.
“We know that children in disadvantaged circumstances suffered most from Covid when the schools were closed. They need to get significant support in terms of smaller classes and additional support in the next 12 months.”
Joe who attended Haulbowline National School and Sacred Heart College in Carrignavar has great memories of his school days.
In particular, he credits his primary school principal with his desire to become a teacher.
“I have dedicated my year as president to Mary Ellis who was the principal of my national school. She was a fantastic teacher and she inspired me to become a primary school teacher.
“I have great memories of my primary and post-primary school days. I always wanted to be a teacher. The impact Mary Ellis had on me was a big factor in my decision.
“I am fortunate that I have always enjoyed it. After 39 years I am still glad I made the right decision. If I was to go back again it would still be my first choice. It is a great profession”
The INTO President qualified as a teacher in 1982. He has spent all his teaching career working in Kilkenny.
He said he has seen a lot of changes since he first started out as a teacher.
“I have been suffering in silence up here as Kilkenny enjoyed so much success in hurling. The day I started working in Kilkenny they arrived home with the Liam McCarthy Cup in 1982. They have done it many times since. There have been huge changes and improvements over the years. I would have taught classes of 42 children with no additional support.
“There have been big improvements on school buildings but more needs to be done. We have made some progress on class size but we need to make more. We have more support for children with special needs than we had when I started. We need to do more in that regard to make sure that some children will be able to manage with support in a mainstream setting. Some will need special classes and some will always need special schools.
"We need to support them all. We are still behind the European average with regard to the class size. It would be great to solve that problem in the coming years,” he added.
Though he has lived in Kilkenny city with his family for over three decades, Joe still visits Haulbowline as often as possible. “I have brothers and sisters in Cork so I do get home to Cork. I was delighted to get down to Haulbowline a few weeks ago to see the new amenity park which is great. I would still very much consider myself a Cork person and to be from Haulbowline.”
Mr McKeown, who has been actively involved within the INTO for 39 years, said it was a ‘great honour’ to be named as president of the union.
“I am delighted. It is great to have been appointed as president. I have been involved in the INTO for 39 years. I am delighted to take over from another Cork person in Mary Magner. It is a great honour.
“We look after 50,000 teachers throughout the 32 counties. It is an organisation that has been going strong for over 150 years. It plays a vital role for teachers,” he said.